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Legal Battles Continue in Fight for Equity in Maryland Higher Education

In an ongoing struggle to right past wrongs, lawyers, community activists and students are awaiting their chance in court to make all Maryland universities equal and to reverse policies they say serve to weaken historically Black universities.

At the heart of the case, The Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education v. Maryland Higher Education Commission, are allegations that the state failed to live up to a 2000 desegregation agreement designed to ensure that HBCUs achieve parity with Maryland’s traditionally White institutions by providing equitable funding. The state was to also avoid duplicating at TWIs academic programs already offered at HBCUs in order to preserve the Black colleges’ uniqueness and attractiveness to nontraditional students.

The lawsuit was originally fi led in October 2006 after the state filed a report with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights alleging full compliance with the desegregation agreement. Assistant Attorney General Catherine M. Shultz, whose office is defending the state, says both parties are in the discovery process, which should be concluded by Jan. 15. Plaintiffs are also awaiting a response from the Offi ce for Civil Rights, which has oversight in ensuring compliance by the state. An OCR spokesperson declined comment.

“We are alleging that the plan in Maryland could have worked if followed,” says David J. Burton, president of the coalition, which is comprised of current and former students, economic advocacy community organizations and a broad range of professionals who are suing the state.

Burton, a Morgan State graduate and president of the Class of 1967, became involved when he spearheaded a fundraiser for the centennial class reunion and alumni debated Morgan’s progress, which led to the investigation of appearance of funding versus actual funding. The coalition formed and initiated the lawsuit as a result of information they gathered from HBCUs about funding adequacies.

Burton says the goal is to ensure the state’s four public HBCUs, Bowie State University, Coppin State University, Morgan State University, and University of Maryland Eastern Shore, get the equal funding so they can compete for students.

He says the state has made “the fundamental decision to relegate HBCUs to inferiority status so that they are not attractive to minorities or nonminority students.”

Segregation was the law of the land in Maryland higher education from the 1807 founding of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County as a Whites-only institution to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. The Brown decision was followed by the 1982 Maryland Consent Decree, the 1985 Maryland Desegregation Plan and the 2000 Partnership Agreement, which was meant to ensure that the state comply with federal desegration law.

According to the agreement, Maryland made several commitments to eliminate its dual system of higher education. The coalition alleges, among other things, that the University of Baltimore and Towson University created MBA programs that duplicate Morgan State’s program.

State officials declined to comment on the lawsuit, but pointed to a state legislative panel report on HBCUs to demonstrate the states’ commitment to these institutions. During the 2009 legislative session, the chairmen of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and House Appropriations Committee recommended that the Maryland Higher Education Commission work with HBCUs in “developing and implementing best practices for the new Access and Success program … and developing capacity and outcome indicators to measure comparability and competitiveness.”

The commission is expected to submit a progress report by Dec. 1.

Says Tricia G. Jefferson, senior counsel for The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, one of the legal groups representing the coalition: “At the end of the day, we just want Maryland to fulfi ll its obligation under the 2000 Partnership Agreement. We want HBCUs to be comparable and competitive with Maryland institutions.”

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